We sug­gest works to ex­plore after Vaughan Wil­liams’s A Sea Sym­phony

BBC Music Magazine - - BUILDING A LIBRARY -

Vaughan Wil­liams To­ward the Un­known Re­gion

A Sea Sym­phony was not the only work in which Vaughan Wil­liams set Walt Whit­man, a poet whom, he said to­wards at the end of his life, ‘I’ve never got over, I’m glad to say’. Three years be­fore the sym­phony’s pre­miere at the Leeds Fes­ti­val, VW had scored a ma­jor suc­cess at that same fes­ti­val with To­ward the Un­known Re­gion, a set­ting for choir and orches­tra of Whit­man’s ‘Darest thou now O soul’. The poem shares much of its im­agery and at­mos­phere with the text of ‘The Ex­plor­ers’, A Sea Sym­phony’s vi­sion­ary con­clud­ing move­ment. Be­gin­ning with a cau­tious tread, VW’S 12-minute work ends in a blaze of ex­cite­ment. Rec­om­mended record­ing: Co­ry­don Singers and Orches­tra/matthew Best Hype­r­ion CDA 66655

Delius Sea Drift

Vaughan Wil­liams was not alone among Bri­tish com­posers in re­spond­ing to the heady at­trac­tions of Whit­man’s po­etry. In 1904, when VW had al­ready started work on A Sea Sym­phony, Delius com­pleted Sea Drift, a 25-minute piece for cho­rus and bari­tone soloist, us­ing texts from Whit­man’s sem­i­nal ‘Leaves of Grass’ col­lec­tion. Al­though Vaughan Wil­liams was gen­er­ally un­en­thu­si­as­tic about Delius’s mu­sic, there is a pal­pa­ble over­lap be­tween the brood­ing, rhap­sodic at­mos­phere of Delius’s set­ting and the lonely soloist of ‘On The Beach At Night, Alone’, the sec­ond move­ment of A Sea Sym­phony. Delius’s id­iom is more ob­vi­ously seeped in Wag­ner than VW’S, mak­ing for in­trigu­ing com­par­isons. Rec­om­mended record­ing: bryn Ter­fel (bari­tone); Bournemouth Sym­phony Cho­rus and Orches­tra/richard Hickox Chan­dos CHAN 10868X

Stan­ford Songs of the Sea

Charles Vil­liers Stan­ford was at one point Vaughan Wil­liams’s com­po­si­tion teacher, and as con­duc­tor of the Leeds Fes­ti­val was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting A Sea Sym­phony per­formed there. Stan­ford’s own Songs of the Sea were pre­miered at Leeds in 1904, and Vaughan Wil­liams knew them well. The in­flu­ence of Stan­ford’s swash­buck­ling or­ches­tra­tion can be vividly felt in the ‘rude brief recita­tive’ episode of A Sea Sym­phony’s open­ing move­ment, and in its swirling Scherzo. ‘Home­ward bound’, the fourth of five songs in Stan­ford’s cy­cle, is more re­flec­tive in tone, ad­um­brat­ing the ex­pan­sive, vale­dic­tory panorama of A Sea Sym­phony’s fi­nale. Rec­om­mended record­ing: Ger­ald Fin­ley (bari­tone); BBC Na­tional Orches­tra of Wales/richard Hickox Chan­dos CHSA 5043

Holst The Cloud Mes­sen­ger

While Vaughan Wil­liams was com­pos­ing A Sea Sym­phony, his close friend Gus­tav Holst was writ­ing sev­eral cho­ral set­tings of an­cient Vedic San­skrit Hymns in which he ex­plored un­usual scales and me­tres. It is cu­ri­ous, then, that in his last In­dian-in­spired work, The Cloud Mes­sen­ger, com­pleted in 1912, Holst re­turned to the rous­ing style of VW’S Sea Sym­phony. It’s a sim­i­larly am­bi­tious work for large cho­rus and orches­tra, but starts quite dif­fer­ently, its for­lorn in­stru­men­tal open­ing por­tray­ing the pro­tag­o­nist’s ex­ile from his home­land and his beloved wife; yet its stir­ring first cho­ral en­try evokes the as­pir­ing qual­ity of A Sea Sym­phony. VW’S work is again evoked in Holst’s hushed cho­ral end­ing when the Cloud safely de­liv­ers the mes­sage to the dis­tant beloved, the orches­tra’s gen­tly al­ter­nat­ing chords re­call­ing Sea Sym­phony’s tran­quil end. Rec­om­mended record­ing: Della Jones (mezzo-so­prano); Lon­don Sym­phony Cho­rus & Orches­tra/ Richard Hickox Chan­dos CHAN 8901

El­gar The Dream of Geron­tius

Vaughan Wil­liams at­tended the pre­miere of El­gar’s cho­ral master­piece The Dream of Geron­tius in 1900, and stud­ied its or­ches­tra­tion avidly in the years after. There are many mo­ments in A Sea Sym­phony where the in­flu­ence of El­gar’s score is ev­i­dent, es­pe­cially in the more in­tro­spec­tive mo­ments of the open­ing move­ment, and in the nu­mi­nous fi­nale. But there are fas­ci­nat­ing points of dif­fer­ence too: while both works share a sense of spir­i­tual quest­ing, El­gar’s hero con­ceives his destiny pri­mar­ily in terms of Catholic the­ol­ogy, while Vaughan Wil­liams in­clines to­wards the doc­tri­nally non-spe­cific pan­the­ism and na­ture mys­ti­cism es­poused in Whit­man’s stir­ring po­etry. Rec­om­mended record­ing: An­drew Sta­ples (tenor), Cather­ine Wyn-rogers (mez­zoso­prano), Thomas Hamp­son (bari­tone); Staat­sopern­chor & RIAS Kam­mer­chor; Staatskapelle Berlin/daniel Baren­boim Decca 483 1585

Bridge The Sea

By the time A Sea Sym­phony was pre­miered in Oc­to­ber 1910, Vaughan Wil­liams’s English con­tem­po­rary Frank Bridge was also writ­ing a four-move­ment work on a sim­i­lar theme, the orches­tral suite The Sea. Bridge’s take on the ocean ad­mits darker hues into its orches­tral pal­ette, and was har­mon­i­cally ad­vanced enough for its pe­riod to cause the young Ben­jamin Brit­ten to be ‘knocked side­ways’ when he first heard it as a boy. Brit­ten later be­came Bridge’s first and only pupil, and his Four Sea In­ter­ludes from Peter Grimes (an­other lo­cus clas­si­cus of Bri­tish mar­itime mu­sic) make a fit­ting com­pan­ion to Bridge’s The Sea. Rec­om­mended record­ing: Ul­ster Orches­tra/ Ver­non Han­d­ley Chan­dos CHAN 10426X

amer­i­can voice: Walt Whit­man in­spired sev­eral Bri­tish cho­ral works, such as To­ward the Un­known Re­gion

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